What leaps to mind whenever someone mentions Archie comics? Teenagers crammed into a jalopy, driving to the soda shop? A romantic rivalry between girl-next-door Betty and spoiled rich kid Veronica? Bubblegum pop hits like “Sugar, Sugar?” Jughead’s stupid hat?
Or has no one mentioned the name “Archie Andrews” to you in years?
The creative team behind the CW’s high school soap Riverdale hopes you remember just enough about the old comic books to be excited about seeing them radically reimagined. Backed by producer Greg Berlanti (who helps manage the network’s DC Comics properties Supergirl, The Flash and Arrow), the new show takes a wild spin through an unusual variation of the Archie-verse, dropping the classic characters into the middle of a moody murder mystery, designed to appeal to Veronica Mars and Gossip Girl fans. The show premieres this Thursday, January 26th; here’s everything you need to know before tuning in.
Archie comics have a rich, varied history
Because Archie has been so ubiquitous for so long, non-aficionados may not realize how long the character’s been around or how important he was in the history of American popular culture. Introduced in Pep Comics in 1941 as a sort of pen-and-ink version of Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy, the all-American teen proved so immediately popular that his publisher MLJ Magazines soon changed its name to Archie Comics Publications. The core premise hasn’t changed much since then: The popular, ambitious, accident-prone Archie tries to skate through his days at Riverdale High. Along for the ride: his woman-hating, eternally hungry buddy Jughead; his competing girlfriends Betty and Veronica; and a teeming cast of eccentric peers and grown-ups.
That concept though has proved flexible enough to allow the gang to change with the times, adapting to rock & roll, disco, breakdancing and beyond. Archie and his friends have anchored a series of evangelical Christian comics, and starred in a musical animated TV cartoon that spawned the hit single “Sugar, Sugar.” Over the years, the cast has expanded to include enduring characters like Josie & the Pussycats and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Even today, at a time when most comics are confined to specialty shops, Archie digests are still available in supermarket checkout lines.
This particular take on Archie is inspired by Twin Peaks (among other shows)
Riverdale doesn’t try to hide its ties to David Lynch’s cult TV favorite: The opening sequence of the first episode features a shocking crime set against the backdrop of a woodland river, scored to a dreamy pop song. (Sound familiar?) Even the welcome sign on the outskirts of town is designed to resemble the one in Lynch’s show. The inciting incident of the entire series is the death of popular bad boy Jason Blossom, and the possible involvement of his mean-spirited twin sister Cheryl. As the characters learn the truth about their friends and neighbors, it becomes clear that this seemingly idyllic community holds dark secrets, tinged with taboo sex and violence.
Of course, that description could also fit Peyton Place, Dallas, The O.C., Desperate Housewives … really, just about any primetime soap of the past 50 years. The point is that Riverdale is very open about what it’s trying to do. This is Archie reimagined as a steamy nighttime television drama. And aside from the Twin Peaks nods (which extend to the regular appearances of actress Mädchen Amick, a.k.a. Shelly Johnson), the series aims to push still more nostalgic buttons by featuring Beverly Hills 90210‘s Luke Perry as Archie’s dad, and 1980s teen-flick queen Molly Ringwald as his mom.
The characters aren’t quite like you remember
You shouldn’t tune in and expect to see, say, a grizzled spinster teacher Ms. Grundy, a fusty billionaire Hiram Lodge and a clownish Jughead Jones – the only TV characters who stay fairly faithful to their comics counterparts are Archie and Betty. As played by K.J. Apa, our every-teen hero is still a good-hearted but scattered kid, trying to juggle homework, dating, high school football and his music, while Lili Reinhart’s blond sweetheart still tends to get in over her head. The third side of their love triangle is very different, however. At the start of the series, Camila Mendes’s Veronica Lodge moves to town with her mother (instead of with her billionaire dad Hiram, who’s embroiled in a financial scandal); rather than being snooty and catty, she goes out of her way to be friendly in order to atone for her family’s past.
Other changes are even more radical. Jughead (Cole Sprouse from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody) is now a crusading kid reporter, digging into the town’s sordid side. Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel) is now a sexpot temptress. Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray) is still an aspiring pop star in pussycat ears, but she’s also more cold-hearted and driven, pushed by her powerful mother (played by another veteran TV star, Robin Givens). Whenever possible, the show distorts the details of the original characters, keeping what’s essential about them while sprucing them up – or, more accurately, making them more deliciously sour.
The nods to the original Archie are everywhere
Longtime comics fans should find plenty of Easter eggs to gather here; in the opening five minutes of the first episode, we get a brief glimpse of nerdy boy scout Dilton Doiley and the first appearance of the community’s motto: “The Town With Pep!” This may be an alternate Archie-verse where the dumb jock Moose sneaks off to the forest for furtive gay sex, but it’s also one where Veronica still calls her beau “Archiekins,” and all the kids still meet up at Pops Chock’lit Shoppe for burgers, shakes and onion rings. The parallels to the source material form the spine of the series.
Riverdale actually isn’t that far out of line with what the comics have been doing
If you haven’t picked up a copy of Archie, Jughead or Betty and Veronica in the past decade, the CW’s version might strike you as some kind of blasphemous perversion of a classic piece of Americana. But actually, the TV show is much more in line with the hip, modern reinvention that’s been a staple of the comics in the 2010s. How much has changed, you ask? Well, back in 2003, Riverdale‘s creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was served with a cease-and-desist order from ACP when he wrote a play about Archie coming out as gay. Eleven years later, he was named the publisher’s Chief Creative Officer, after scoring a cult hit as the writer of Afterlife with Archie, a reimagining of the character in a zombie apocalypse. Soon after that, Aguirre-Sacasa started writing Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which gives everyone’s favorite teenage witch a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-like makeover.
This decade has also seen titles like Life with Archie – exploring alternate futures where the hero grows up and marries either Betty or Veronica – and Kevin Keller, about the gang’s openly gay pal. (And yes, Riverdale has its own Kevin. Who do you think Moose meets in the woods?) In short: Archie Comics have been hipper than you might think for a while now. Riverdale isn’t an anomaly; if anything, it’s refreshingly up to date.